Tag Archives: vegetarian

So Fresh!

16 Mar

It is currently 18 degrees Celsius in London (that’s 65 degrees for you Neanderthals using Fahrenheit). In March. The winter is over! Hurray! But rather than concentrating here and now, this weather makes me think of a trip to Spain T and I took nearly three years ago, a big tour of Spain from Barcelona to Madrid and down to Andalucia to visit Cordoba, Granada, and Seville. 

We both loved Spain. The weather was gloriously hot, the people were friendly but not overwhelmingly gregarious, and the scenery was just stunning. We were having pleasant fantasies of a pied-à-terre in Madrid, where we could go to museums whenever we wanted and have long afternoon strolls in the Retiro…

But there had been been one lingering issue through our trip – the food. And specifically, the vegetables. I could eat my body-weight in seafood if you let me, and the Spanish do lovely things with potatoes and lamb. But after several days of meat-and-carb indulgence T and I were feeling distinctly unwell. So, being sensible, we tried to eat more fruit and veg. But the dishes served in restaurants bore about as much resemblance to plants as a mackerel does to a Goldfish cracker. It seemed the Spanish had never met a vegetable they couldn’t cook to mush and garnish with slivers of ham. Salads were mounds of iceberg lettuce served with corn, cheap tuna, and hard-boiled eggs. They were dishes from decades, before scientists learned that vitamins existed. 

But towards the end of our trip, after a visit to the Alhambra, we decided to forget about Spanish food and went to a pizzeria for lunch instead. And there it was on the menu: ensalada de tomate y aguacate. We couldn’t believe our luck, and were still shaking our heads when it arrived at our table: wedges of tomato tossed with chunks of avocado and whole basil leaves, dressed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. It was refreshing and intensely vegetal and exactly what we needed. Pizzas forgotten, we demolished the entire bowl. 

Ensalada de Granada

I’ve tinkered slightly with the original concept, giving it more zest with lemon juice, extra herbs, and a generous sprinkling of spring onion. I understand that there are people that can’t stand raw allium of any kind, but I really, really like the piquancy in salads. 

Serves 2 for lunch

3-4 big tomatoes/1-2 punnets cherry tomatoes, cut into chunks or in half

2-3 spring onions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced (you can sub in chopped shallots or red onion, just soak them in iced water for 10 minutes to take away the sulfur burn before draining and adding to the salad)

1 big handful chopped soft herbs (I really love mint and coriander, but you could also play with tarragon, basil, chervil…)

1 Hass avocado (UK readers: DO NOT buy the green-skinned ones from your local supermarket! They are watery and unripenable and generally a crime against the name of avocado. Go to a greengrocer or farmer’s market and look for big plump specimens with black skins. They will be more expensive but they are a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.)

1 quarter of a lemon/splash of red wine vinegar

1 big slug of the best olive oil you can get

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Optional but tasty: protein of some variety (I’ve had this with really good Ortiz tinned tuna and hot smoked salmon. But you could also add shredded cooked chicken, or fresh mozzarella for a veggie option, or even just good canned chickpeas if you’re vegan, though I’d season more generously with the chickpeas because they’re quite earthy.)

Put the tomatoes, spring onion and herbs in a salad bowl. Add your protein of choice Cut the avocado into fat chunks and put it in too. Add your acid, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Mix, check for seasoning, serve! 

Image

Seasonal Process

7 Aug

A step-by-step guide to make a plateful of summer:

1. After you’ve eaten breakfast, thinly slice some garlic and chop some basil into ribbons, and put them in a very big bowl with a hearty slug of good olive oil.

2. Go to work. Or, if you’re me, go to your nearest café/bakery and write more of this blog, then wander around random neighborhoods of London searching for more material for said blog and generally passing the time.

3. Return home after work/moseying. Your kitchen will smell like at Italian grandmother’s been cooking while you were out. After taking a deep whiff, chop up from two to four of the ripest, squidgiest tomatoes you can find and mix them with the garlic, basil, and oil.

4. Do whatever it is you do post-work; go the gym, run out to the supermarket, or watch the festival of minor sports currently appearing on most television channels.

5. When you’re good and hungry, boil some salted water and add a small fistful of spaghetti (not whole wheat – I normally love the chewy, nutty stuff, but it doesn’t work for this dish.)

6. While the spaghetti is cooking, cut a ball of mozzarella into cubes the size of your top thumb joint. When that’s done, run back and watch another five minutes of athletics.

7. Drain the pasta, then pour it on top of the tomato-garlic-basil mixture. Scatter the cheese over the spaghetti. Toss the spaghetti and cheese together first, then bring the tomatoes up from the bottom of the bowl.

8. Serve. Eat with lots of appreciative groaning. When you’ve finished with the pasta, pick up your plate and slurp the rest of the tomato-garlic dressing like a ten-year old drinking cereal milk.

9. Repeat for all of August and a chunk of September.

(Serves 2. For the less personalized version of this recipe, visit The Wednesday Chef.)

Bridging the Hungry Gap

27 Mar

Springtime, and the living is easy. As easy as it gets in London, anyway. The sun is shining, the mercury’s in the very high teens (mid-to-high sixties for my American compadres), and my coat and boots are shoved deep in my closet for their long summer sleep. I’m even writing this on my sunny terrace whilst barefoot. To say that it doesn’t get much better can’t encompass the sense of intense wellbeing that currently permeates both this city and me. But one thing niggles at my contentment: the hungry gap.

For those of you blessed with produce aisles bearing strong resemblance to the Garden of Eden, and who therefore are blissfully unaware of this phenomenon, the hungry gap is the period of time (generally March and April) when British fields are entirely unfruitful. The last of the root vegetables and brassicas have straggled in, and the tender, pale green joys that are asparagus, peas, and broad beans won’t appear for a while yet.

So whilst every other indicator screams for us to cast away our woolly garments and frolic in the daffodils under a gently warming sun, the farmer’s market bogs us down with more heavy, wintery food. Don’t get me wrong, my love for humble stew is nearly boundless. But after six months of dietary hibernation, I want to dive into an enormous bowl of salad like Daffy Duck wants to dive into a mound of treasure, screaming, “I’m rich! I’m wealthy! I’m comfortably well off! WOOHOO!”

At first thought a warm orzo salad with beetroot and feta doesn’t merit quite the same enthusiasm as a mound of gold coins and gems, but look at the jewel-like colours on this baby:

No, your eyes do not deceive you; that pasta is SCARLET. You perform this magic cooking the orzo in the same water in which you boil the beets. The beets won’t have the same caramelly flavour they get from roasting, but I think that’s a worthwhile sacrifice to get the pasta to turn spectacular colours.

Overall, the result is a well-balanced mix of flavours: earthy-sweet beetroot, salty feta, savoury pinenuts, onion and garlic, bitter greens. Its feet are firmly planted in winter, but its lightness makes it perfect for a warm, lazy March day.

Check out the recipe, originally by The Parsley Thief, on Food52.

The Right Way to Cook a Vegetable

27 Feb

As I’ve been attempting to eat more healthily, I’ve been exploring different vegetarian cookbooks, and seeing what they have to offer. So far, I can make out that there have been two different schools of thought about vegetarianism in the past few decades.

The Moosewood Restaurant and their ilk from the 1970s exemplified the first school. They were determined to prove that “vegetarian” did not have to mean “bearing strong resemblance to wood chippings.” Dairy was their not-so-secret weapon; the Moosewood Cookbook has enough milk, cream, and cheese in its recipes to make a dairyman Solomon blush.

In the past few years, as cooks have become both more internationally-minded and health-conscious, dairy has taken a back seat in vegetarian dishes. Instead, chefs draw from a plethora of ingredients from around the world to build layers of umami flavour. The leading practitioner of this method is Yotam Ottolenghi, who runs several restaurants here in London and wrote an excellent cookbook called Plenty, which I would recommend to anyone who likes to eat well, not just meat-avoiders.

Following on this trend, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall published his own vegetarian cookbook last year. I find at times I get halfway through an Ottolenghi recipe and start doing a very good impression of a 5-year-old on a road trip, though with more profanity. But Hugh’s recipes are straightforward and relatively quick to put together.

His parsnip soup uses a little milk to bring out the vegetable’s creaminess, but the dish’s focus is its pepperiness, a flavour which is amplified by the cardamom and cumin. If you are of the vegan persuasion, I imagine almond milk would work just as well in place of the dairy.

The original recipe also calls for half the liquid, but I found that left me with a thick puree, rather than soup. I also left out the butter and simply sautéed the onion in sunflower oil, figuring that things would taste rich enough without it.

Parsnip and Ginger Soup (adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Everyday)

Serves 2

1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2cm/1-inch chunk ginger, peeled and finely chopped
4 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed (or 0.125 teaspoon ground cardamom)
0.125 teaspoon ground cumin
0.125 teaspoon ground cayenne
250g/9 oz parsnip (equals one medium-sized vegetable), peeled and cut into 2cm/1-inch chunks
800ml/3.5 cups vegetable stock
200ml/1 cup milk (The recipe calls for full-fat, but I used semi-skimmed and the world didn’t end.)
salt and pepper

Warm the oil in a saucepan over a medium flame. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, and spices and stir for a minute. Add the parsnips and mix well.

Pour in the stock, then simmer the soup until the parsnips are quite soft, about 15 minutes.

Take the soup off the heat, and blitz it with an immersion blender or in a food processor until velvety-smooth. Add the milk to the soup, then put the pot back on the stove over a gentle flame until the soup is just starting to simmer.

Ladle into bowls, and garnish with a spoonful of thick natural yogurt.

Salad, or a Riff on Balance

21 Feb

Salads are quick to put together, but I think the process is a more delicate one than cooking a hot dish. With every dish I make, I want to achieve an equal balance of flavours – sweet against savoury, light and herbal against dark and rich.

The simplest way to get all the different tastes to play together nicely is to apply heat. For example, simmering carrots in an orangey beef stew releases their sweetness into the dish, countering the savoury beef and tart citrus.

But with some small exceptions, that’s not how salad works. Everything is what it is, and the cook has to be much more aware of how raw ingredients taste, and calibrate them to each other and the dressing accordingly.

The following recipe from Veggiestan (a superb cookbook which I strongly recommend you all buy) looks bizarre, almost alien, on the page. Cumin and dried chili in salad dressing? Cooking bulgur in apricot nectar? I almost skipped over the recipe, but I decided to give it a shot as part of my health kick.

And man, is it good! Incredibly fresh and lively, with the dried apricots, bulgur, and pistachios meeting the red onion, herbs, and spicy dressing in an entente cordiale. The chiles added a delicate, warming sensation that tied all the ingredients together.

This is brilliant on its own as a main course, and I think it would make a great side dish at a barbecue, paired with some grilled aubergine or a lamb burger.

Spinach, Apricot, and Bulgur Salad (adapted from Veggiestan by Sally Butcher)

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a starter

Salad:

75g/2.5oz dried apricots, coarsely chopped
150g/5.25 oz fine bulgur wheat
200ml/ 7 fluid oz vegetable stock
150ml/5 fluid oz apricot juice/nectar
200g spinach
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced (If you find the flavour of onion too aggressive when raw, soak the slices in iced water for ten minutes for extra-crispy onion without the sulfurous burn.)
50g shelled raw pistachios, toasted
1 handful fresh coriander, woody stems removed and coarsely chopped
1 handful fresh mint, leaves plucked and coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 140C/275F.

Put the apricots in a small bowl and pour lukewarm water over them until just covered. Leave them to rehydrate.

Meanwhile, spread the bulgur on the bottom of a baking or roasting tray, making sure there’s plenty of room for the bulgur to expand. Cover the bulgur with the stock and apricot nectar and mix well. Pop into the oven for 20 minutes, stirring the grains halfway through.

While the bulgur bakes, prep the vegetables and herbs and toast the pistachios. Mix up the dressing (see below).

When the bulgur is done, remove from the oven, fluff the grains with a fork, and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Drain the water from the apricots, and put all ingredients (except the dressing and the bulgur) in a big-enough salad bowl. Then add the slightly-cooled bulgur and dressing, then toss.

Dressing:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lime juice
0.5 teaspoon cumin
0.5 teaspoon red chili flakes
salt and pepper

Beat all ingredients together in a small bowl with a fork.

The Power of the Basics

20 Feb

Sometimes in my pursuit of interesting and exotic flavours, I forget about basic ingredients, the ones I use to bulk up a soup or to form the base for a sauce. I cook with them nearly every day, but I rarely think about their taste. That is, until I ate mujaddara.

Mujaddara
is a Middle Eastern dish that is more than the sum of its humble parts: rice, lentils, onions, and yogurt. But it’s the onions that really make the dish. Caramelised until they’re café-au-lait brown, then swiftly blistered over high heat, they add a deep savoury sweetness and elevate the rice and lentils out of quotidian blandness. The yogurt binds everything together texturally, and its tang combined with the spice mixture make a sprightly melody against the earthy, oniony base.

As well as being surprisingly delicious, this dish is also quite cheap and straightforward to source. I would bet that you have rice and onions in your kitchens, as well as most of the spices in the yogurt. And if you don’t have a bag of lentils in your cupboard, you really should! They’re cheap, healthy, and last forever. If you’re doing it right, the only things you should have to buy at the grocery store are the yogurt, a lemon, and some fresh mint.

Mujaddara with Spiced Yogurt (adapted from Rivka on Food52)

Serves 2

Mujaddara:

72g/0.25 cup + 2 tablespoons green or Puy lentils
1 teaspoon table salt, divided in half
92g/0.5 cup white rice
15g/1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided in half
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced

Yogurt:

60ml/0.25 cup Greek yogurt
0.25 teaspoon cumin
0.25 teaspoon coriander
0.25 teaspoon cinnamon
0.25 teaspoon paprika
0.25 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon zest
juice of a quarter of a lemon
1 small handful fresh mint, chopped

Put the lentils, half the salt, and 480ml/2 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring everything to a boil, then take it down to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered for approximately 20 minutes.

While the lentils are simmering, mix together all the yogurt ingredients in a small bowl, and pop in the fridge.

Drain the lentils in a colander and rinse and dry the saucepan. Put the other half of the salt and 240ml/1 cup of water in the saucepan, and bring it up to a fast simmer. Add the rice, cover and turn the heat down as far as it goes, without turning it off. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until your rice is done.

While the rice is simmering, melt together the butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a sauté pan on medium-low heat. When the butter is close to dissolving completely, add the onions and stir to incorporate. Fry slowly until onions have started to soften, about five minutes.

Now turn the flame up to medium and cook the onions until they’re soft and light brown all over, stirring very frequently, about 12-15 minutes. If the onions start to stick, add a tablespoon of water to loosen things up.

When onions are browned, turn the heat up to high. Fry them for another three minutes, stirring very occasionally. Don’t be afraid to char the onions a little bit – you want them to be getting quite crispy in parts.

In a serving bowl, combine the lentils, rice, and onions, and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes so the flavours mingle. Taste the mixture for salt – you’ll want to err on the side of undersalting, since the yogurt is also salted.

After the rest, serve up topped with yogurt.